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Hamlet in Viet Nam with local flavour

Update: November, 15/2015 - 03:22

New Hamlet: A tradition xuan pha dance was featured in the play.

by Bach Lien

Four hundred years have passed since William Shakespeare penned Hamlet, and yet the story and characters continue to be vivid even today. The play has been performed in almost every language, on stage, on screen and at popular festivals across the world. Now, it has returned to Viet Nam (after it was first staged here 10 years ago).

Hamlet premiered at the Ha Noi Opera House last week, after six months of preparation by actors of the Viet Nam National Drama Theatre.

The new Vietnamese version attracted a number of theatre lovers. Despite the record price of the tickets, ranging from VND400,000 (US$18) to VND1 million, the 500-seat theatre was fully occupied.

Hamlet tells the story of the depressed Prince Hamlet of Denmark. After being summoned home to Denmark from school in Germany to attend his father's funeral, he is shocked to find that his mother Gertrude has already remarried. The Queen has wed Hamlet's uncle Claudius, the dead king's brother. To Hamlet, the marriage is "foul incest". Worse still, Claudius has crowned himself King, even though Hamlet was the heir to the throne. Hamlet discovers soon that his uncle had murdered his father, and then finds a way to take revenge.

Adapting the popular play was a huge challenge for veteran artist Anh Tu, the play's director. He had to preserve the play's original plot and also ensure Vietnamese audiences did not find it difficult to understand it due to cultural differences.

Tu said he was obsessed with the problem of directing the play for a year. Vietnamising a world classic is already a challenge. Another challenge is an audience that is increasingly demanding and expects a perfect play (from good actors to good technology).

If the director had remained faithful to the original, he would have had to stage a play that lasted four to five hours. Tu reduced the duration to just two hours, making sure that it would be more suitable for the local audience, which is used to plays that last only about an hour and a half.

He also added some scenes that were not part of the original script.

Doctor of Literature Nguyen Thi Minh Thai and teacher at the Ha Noi's Stage and Cinema College Trinh Thuy were invited to the theatre to give lectures about Shakespeare, the period he lived in and the context in which he wrote Hamlet to help the actors understand better the roles they were to play.

While there are many versions of Hamlet around the world, Anh Tu chose to focus on the theme of the fierce fight against crime. Facing up to and fighting crime is a worthy venture, even though sometimes we have to pay a high price.

Meet and greet: Actors Ta Tuan Minh and Quynh Hoa star in the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia, Hamlet's lover.

A large number of the audience were pleasantly surprised to watch a Vietnamised Hamlet, in which the characters were involved in a conflict between love and power. Love seemed to appear in each action and word of the characters, which pleased many audience members.

The theme of "love-power" made this version of Hamlet different from the others. The king's own brother kills him to marry the Queen. This illicit love contrasts with the pure love of Hamlet and Ophelia. At the end of the play, a clear message was conveyed to the public, in that what is stolen with trickery becomes meaningless.

In the play, those who commit crimes occupy high ranks, such as the Queen and the brother of the King. Prince Hamlet cannot accept them after they commit those crimes, and dies while fighting crime.

The message conveyed by this play is still very relevant. Society cannot exist if crimes cannot be wiped out. It will be injustice if criminals are not punished. The contemporary relevance of the play was therefore easily welcomed by the audience.

The Vietnamese flavour in the play was the Xuan Pha traditional dance of Thanh Hoa Province. Emeritus artist and former director of the Lam Son Singing and Dance Theatre Hoang Hai was invited to the Drama National Theatre on weekends to teach the actors dancing.

Performers of Xuan Pha Dance wear painted masks and don strange costumes. They sing and dance, making the viewers feel as if they are in some kind of wonderland. In the play, the Xuan Pha dance was performed at the banquet given by the King, and by mandarin Polonius who wanted to entertain a depressed Hamlet.

Moreover, the sound of drums accompanied the performance of the actors throughout the play, making it more familiar to the Vietnamese audience.

Some scenes of the play induced strong emotions among the audience, such as the one showing Ophelia's death.

The image of a young woman struggling with death and falling between white silk pieces under green lights was touching. It appeared as if Ophelia was drowning between icebergs.

The scene aroused the compassion of the audience that was watching an innocent woman die in a merciless society.

The dialogues and monologues in which the characters struggle with their conscience were the most interesting scenes.

The play was appreciated by both the actors and the audiences for its human values.

"I like the way the director staged Hamlet. He showed in the play that despite the dark side of a person, there is always a flickering light of hope," actor Ta Tuan Minh, who played Prince Hamlet, said.

"The worst of men have something that is pitiable. The scene of the King and the Queen at the end of the play show that all mistakes can be corrected," he said.

The audience remained silent during the play, with the hall resounding with applause only at the end of each scene.

This 17th century tragedy stirred deep emotions among the viewers.

'The artists highlighted the meaning of this tragedy, which is a journey to find the truth. I was impressed by the performance of the actors," Tran Cao Phong, an audience member, said.

"I always found that Hamlet was from a very different culture, and found it difficult to follow and understand it. But now with this play, I saw a very familiar Hamlet," he said.

Many of the audience stayed long after the end of the play to meet and greet actors. The success of the play has made people more optimistic about the future of theatre in Viet Nam, especially when comedy and contemporary plays don't find it easy to attract an audience.

After watching Hamlet, screenwriter Le Quy Hien said the play by the National Drama Theatre showed that Viet Nam could stage world classics to please the Vietnamese audience.

Director Tu said Hamlet was chosen this year because it would be a challenge that could re-confirm the status of the Viet Nam National Drama Theatre after a recent bout of difficulties.

"If we do not stage the world's classic dramas, many Vietnamese people will not get any opportunity to enjoy them," he said.

He has proved that the National Drama Theatre was the country's leading theatre.

Such quality plays bring hope that theatre can attract demanding audiences again.

After its premiere at the Ha Noi Opera House last week, the play is being performed at the National Drama Theatre, located at 1 Trang Tien Street, on Friday and Saturday evenings throughout November and December. — VNS

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